Football / FA Cup: Barton aiming to make Swansea suffer: Phil Shaw on the old Evertonian guiding the FA Cup fortunes of

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN BARTON has been a rover throughout a career which began as right-back for Boldmere St Michael's, peaked at Everton and is now continuing as manager of Nuneaton Borough, but the magic and the misery of the FA Cup have always had his forwarding address.

The Wembley trail has led Barton, a 40-year-old Brummie, from municipal pitches with dingy dressing-rooms and tepid showers to within sight of the twin towers. He has tasted the disappointment of defeat in the preliminary round as well as the buzz of being in the draw for the semi-finals.

Familiarity with the game's extremes makes Barton well suited to Nuneaton. Twice in the 1980s - when Eddie McGoldrick, Trevor Peake and Trevor Morley were launched into top-flight football from Manor Park - they were Vauxhall Conference runners-up. Yet they ended the decade in the Midland Division of the Beazer Homes League, deluged by debts and riven by in-fighting.

The success of a minority shareholder in forcing the majority interest in Nuneaton to sell 'for the good of the club' was even cited as a precedent during Terry Venables's court battle with Alan Sugar. The Warwickshire outfit now have a 14-man board, a set-up Barton describes diplomatically as having 'its strengths and weaknesses', but they are upwardly mobile once more.

Saturday's tricky first-round match, away to Swansea City of the Second Division, offers a reminder of their past and potential. En route to their only third-round appearance, 26 years ago, Boro beat Swansea before facing Rotherham at home before a 22,114 crowd (they lost in a replay). These days, with Nuneaton mid-table in the Beazer Premier, support averages a healthy 1,200, and Barton anticipates a sizeable following in Wales.

He has a personal score to settle at the Vetch Field, having been in the Kidderminster Harriers side who lost to the Swans at the same stage four years ago. 'We were two down and came back to 2-2,' Barton recalled. 'Hand on heart, I was to blame for their winner. We also lost 5-0 to them in the Welsh Cup final, so the omens aren't promising.'

Fortunately, Barton can draw on happier portents. Having progressed modestly from Boldmere to Paget Rangers, Sutton Coldfield and Stourbridge, his first brush with the Cup's capacity for surprise came with Worcester City 15 years ago. 'We played Plymouth, who had Malcolm Allison as manager. He'd got his fedora going again and had players such as Martin Hodge and Gary Megson in the team.

'Logically, we didn't have a chance, but we won 2-0. I remember being very much the worse for drink about nine o'clock that night]'

Within a month Barton had packed in his engineering job - he now lectures in Recreation and Leisure - and was Everton-bound for pounds 30,000. His long-striding, overlapping style had prompted Colin Todd to tip him for England before he suffered a bad ankle injury, just down the road from Nuneaton at Coventry. 'That'll teach me to get forward,' he said, laughing at the painful recollection.

It was exactly a year before he played again, and in 1982, after 21 appearances, he was released by Howard Kendall. Any hard feelings? 'Quite the opposite. The way Everton treated you was a model for any club - nothing was too much.'

His next stop, Derby County, was 'no comparison', a club flirting with bankruptcy and the Third Division under Peter Taylor. But again Barton enjoyed a Cup fling: in his first season, the Rams shocked Nottingham Forest; in the second, their run took them into the last eight. A lucky draw at Plymouth put them in the hat for the semis with a home replay to come.

'I can picture their winning goal now, which is ironic because I didn't see it at all at the time. It came direct from a corner by Andy Rogers, and I lost the ball in the lights behind Steve Cherry, our keeper. All of a sudden it hit the net right by me at the far post . . . it still grates.'

After finally playing at Wembley and gaining an FA Trophy winners' medal with Kidderminster, where he was assistant manager, Barton took the Nuneaton post two and a half years ago. He brought in Peter Eastoe, an old Goodison Park colleague, as coach.

The pair found supporters hankering for what they regarded as their rightful place in the Conference. Despite the financial problems - he mutters 'Sod the expense' as he slips a second sugar in his tea - Barton feels they are only a couple of players away.

In Darren Bullock, who has already scored seven Cup goals this season, Nuneaton have a talent coveted Coventry and Swansea. Paul Culpin, their all-time top scorer, commanded a non-League record fee of pounds 50,000 when he joined the Sky Blues. 'Cully' is now home and, Barton believes, primed to purge his regrets over not making more of a full-time career.

In last year's first round, Nuneaton lost at Woking after leading 2-1 in injury time; the time-keeping remains a sore point. This time, after rattling up 19 goals in the qualifying rounds against Winterton Rangers, West Midlands Police, Worksop and the Diadora League leaders, Stevenage, in a 'hostile atmosphere' away from home, Barton promises to have a go on Saturday.

'Someone, somewhere is certain to create an upset,' he said, echoing managers from Gravesend to Gretna and perhaps envisaging a nostalgic, money-spinning tie at Everton. 'Our attitude at Nuneaton must be: 'Why not us?'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments